Published: 27th August 2019
Meet Rescue Foundation's Triveni Acharya, who has helped prevent over 5K girls from being trafficked
Rescue Foundation also helps rehabilitate the survivors through health checks, counseling and legal aid. They also provide them with proper nutrition and run age verification tests
It was the year 1991. Triveni Acharya and her husband Balkrishna moved from Gujarat to Mumbai, looking to start a new life together after Balakrishna's 12 years of military service. He started a business and she got a job as a journalist. One day, she was sent on an assignment to Fulkland road, one of the largest red light areas in Asia. There, she saw little girls who were being forced into prostitution. She was deeply disturbed and that night she shared everything with her husband. To her surprise, he told her that he wanted to talk to her about the same thing because one of his staff members fell in love with a girl from the brothel and wanted to rescue her and marry her.
Triveni and her husband didn't know much about human trafficking at that point, but they knew that this girl and others like her wanted to get out of there and it was their basic human right. So they decided to talk to the police and get her and the other girls out of there. They spoke to the Commissioner's office. Balkrishna went along with the police to rescue the girl. Immediately, there were others came running to them, pleading to be rescued as well. Balkrishna took them to the police station. Their statements were recorded. And that's when they got to hear the stories that changed the direction of their lives. Everyone had a story. Some were kidnapped. Some were living in extreme poverty and were enticed with the promise of a good job and a better life.
The couple realised that there were so many organisations that worked for orphans, disabled people and old people, but there were hardly any to help these young girls. "We knew we had to do something about it," says Triveni. "We couldn't leave these girls helpless and alone. My husband quit his business and he started going there in the guise of a customer to get information and give it to the police," she adds, explaining how the journey began. "We rescued the girls, tried to understand the language because there were so many girls brought from Nepal. We would then offer them counselling and help them move on with their life. My husband went to Nepal a couple of times to reunite the girls with their families, but it was not always successful because some didn't have addresses, some families didn't accept the girls back. There were many challenges," she says.
In 1996, they officially registered the NGO 'Rescue Foundation'. They rescued more than 400 girls in their first major operation. That brought the issue into the limelight and it was widely covered by the press. Today, the organisation has rescued more than 5,000 girls from sex trafficking across the country, including Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Agra, Bihar and Rajasthan.
"We have a big network of informers, that's how we get most of our information, apart from police reports," says Triveni. She adds, "It is a very sensitive job, we have to extremely careful, because if we're not, the girl's life can be in danger. When we receive any information, we first try to track them down, inform the police and then rescue them. Once the girls are older, around 25, they go out of business. So there's always a demand for younger, virgin girls. Whenever a new girl is brought in, we get information about it. They're referred to as naya mal (new product). You can also tell they're new by the way they wear their makeup and the look of fear in their faces. Our spies try to talk to them because in order to rescue them legally, we need to get their consent first. Only if they agree that they have been forced into the trade can an FIR be filed."
Once they are rescued, they bring them into the shelter, run a couple of health checks including HIV and pregnancy tests. They also provide them counselling and proper nutrition. They also have age verification tests. If the girls are younger than 16, they're produced before the child welfare committee. The organisation gives the court all the information about the rescued girls and the court monitors their progress every month. If the family is involved in the trafficking, the girls are kept in the shelter till they turn 18. If they are pregnant, and an abortion is not possible, they help them with the delivery and if the mother wants to give them up to an adoption agency, the court orders that. If they're above 18, the shelter keeps them for about six months and sends them back to their state, preferably to their partner NGOs.
"The main cause for trafficking," Triveni says, "is poverty. Girls are forced to take the risk of moving because they have no other choice to provide for themselves. There are also many who are kidnapped. The other cause is tradition. In some tribal communities, prostitution is a tradition that's been practised for generations. There's no shame there. But the main cause is the demand for prostitution. No matter how much poverty is there, if there is no demand by customers, these girls wouldn't be forced into it. Nowadays, even well-to-do girls are trapped by drug addiction and then brought into prostitution."
She adds, "There are also many girls who are deceived. There is one particular man who goes by the name Raju who promises several girls that he would marry them and convinces them to leave their families. He later brings them here and leaves without a word. Now, in this brothel, the girls fight over him. He manages to make all them fall so much in love with him that they are ready to leave everything behind." The girls are completely trapped because they're far from their homes and cannot survive outside. They're also so afraid to try to escape. There's no way out until someone somehow finds out.
For Triveni and her team, every day and every operation is a challenge. But it was in 2003 that they faced the biggest threat. "We went with the police to rescue the girls. This time, there was a huge mob of about a hundred people. They dragged the girls from our hands and we couldn't do anything about it. It was an extremely delicate situation," Triveni recalls.
"There was another time when we rescued some minor girls and took them to the police station, but one of the officers sent them back to the brothel and it was later found that the owner of the brothel was a famous local politician. That officer was then suspended. So there are a few instances like that where the system is corrupted. But things have changed now. Law and judiciary is highly sensitised," she adds.
However, Triveni's biggest challenge in life was in 2005, when her husband died in a road accident. She was devastated and wasn't sure how she would continue doing the job alone. But the girls that she had rescued came to her and said they would stand by her and help her rescue others like them. "That motivated me and kept me going. I was ready to die for this cause and so were my staff members," she says.
In Triveni's 29 years of dealing with sex trafficking, if there's one thing she knows for a fact, it's this. 'As long as the demand for prostitution remains, trafficking will continue. "It's just like drugs," she says. "When there is a demand for drugs, no matter how expensive it is, no matter how difficult or dangerous it is to attain it, people would do whatever it takes to get them and so the business keeps running. It's the same with prostitution. Which is why we've been working with the government to prohibit and prosecute customers, so that people will be afraid to enter these areas."
When asked if things have become any easier now, she says, "Quite the contrary. Earlier, it was easy for us to get information because these brothels were in areas that were known to be red light areas like Fulkland road. Now, prostitution is run secretly in spas or massage parlours, dance bars, lodges and even dhabas. So it's more difficult for us to get information." But, none of this can stop this fiery lady from carrying out each operation. She is as determined as ever to see to it that these young girls have a chance at a better life. And the 5,000 girls will never forget how she and her team changed their world.